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Office advocates for crime victims

For Anita Costley, it began when her son, Malik Powell, was murdered in the Whitemarsh Shopping Plaza in November 1998.

For Sally Perry, it began when three men broke into her home and brutally assaulted her, bound her, and stole money, jewelry and her car in March 2009.

For Tammy Smith (not her real name), it began when her own husband abducted and sodomized her.

These women and others in Suffolk will always be crime victims, and they will never forget their victimization.

The week of April 18-24 is National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, and will be declared Crime Victims’ Rights Week in Suffolk by a proclamation by Mayor Linda T. Johnson on Wednesday.

Costley, Perry and Smith say they understood their rights as crime victims better thanks to Suffolk’s Victim/Witness Services office.

“I had never been in a courtroom before,” said Perry, who recently testified against one of her attackers. “All I knew was what was on TV.”

The victim/witness coordinators, however, fixed that before the trial. Perry got a courtroom tour, where they went over everything from where the defendant would be sitting to how to speak clearly into the microphone.

“There was nothing left unexplained,” Perry said. “Everybody is there if you need them.”

The victim/witness office employs five people through state funding, and provides services to all victims of and witnesses to crimes. The job doesn’t involve just counseling, though.

“People think we hold hands and hand out tissues, and we do,” said Diane Bryant, the director of the program. “But we wear many hats. There’s more to this job than what people know.”

The process begins when a crime is committed. The victims — defined as anyone suffering physical, emotional or financial harm as a direct result of a felony or certain misdemeanors, along with spouses and children of all victims, and parents, siblings, legal guardians, current and former foster parents of minor victims, mentally or physically incapacitated victims or any victim of homicide — then are officially eligible for services through the program.

Sometimes, the victim will initiate the first contact with the office, but often, the victim’s contact information is received from the police department, and the office will make contact.

Bryant works with victims of violent crimes. Allison Howard works with general crime victims, and Sonya Abbott works with juvenile and domestic relations victims.

The victim/witness coordinators are available to answer questions about the legal system, help the victims apply for assistance with medical bills or funeral costs, and help make arrangements for out-of-town victims and witnesses to travel back to Suffolk for court appearances.

Sometimes, Abbott said, she has to convince people to go to court.

“A lot of times, my witnesses don’t want to come to court,” she said. “Once families decide the crisis is over, nobody wants to come to court.”

When the case begins moving through the court system, the victim/witness coordinators are in court with the victims, explaining legal jargon, making sure their rights are upheld and ensuring the court knows the full impact of the crime on the victim — a legal procedure known as a “victim impact statement,” usually given at sentencing.

“It gives the victims a voice,” Abbott said.

But the services don’t just end after the trial. Each victim receives an “ended letter,” which ensures they know the outcome of the trial. Victims also have the right to be notified for life when the defendant is transferred, released or escaped.

“It doesn’t end just in the courtroom,” said Angie Owen, who also works in the victim/witness office. Owen also calls victims and witnesses if cases get continued, so they will not have to go to court needlessly.

The three women said the victim/witness services helped them immensely.

“You are not alone,” Perry said. “Anytime I needed help or had a question, they were on the other end of the phone.”

Smith, who did not want her real name used because she is a victim of a sex crime, remained silent about her victimization for some time, thinking nobody would think she was a real victim, because her husband was the offender.

“I was glad the victim’s advocate program was in place,” Smith said. “They called and checked on me to let them know I was OK.”

Smith’s children had to testify in court, and the victim’s advocates made sure they were provided with a separate place to wait and that both parents were excused from the courtroom “so they get to speak freely,” Smith said.

“I went through so many different personal experiences,” Smith said. “I would literally call [Abbott] when I was driving down the street. She never turned my call down. She found time to call me back.”

Costley, whose son’s case went unsolved for several years, called every year around the anniversary of the crime, just to talk.

“They were there when I cried, they were there when I laughed,” she said. “They were just there.”

For more information about Crime Victims’ Rights Week, see the display in the lobby of the Suffolk courthouse or visit http://ovc.ncjrs.gov/ncvrw/. For more information on the Suffolk victim/witness office, call 514-4372.